Sermon for Lent 5 (29 March 2009)
‘Create in me a clean heart, O God’: these words are from Psalm 51, a prayer traditionally written by King David after his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba that brought so much ruin to so many people.
‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts’—the prophet Jeremiah’s words, and the answer to David’s prayer.
What law can be placed in our hearts? What law can make our hearts clean?
Walter Wangerin is a Christian author from the USA. He writes about how he tried to stop his son Matthew from stealing comic books. Let’s hear how he tells the story in his own words:
Three times I tried to get my son Matthew not to steal comic books! This is the truth! I’m not sure why, but my son started this comic book collection. And when he couldn’t get them fast enough by buying them, well, he then began stealing them. I tried three different efforts to get Matthew to stop stealing comic books.…I tried my best to change him. Three times I used the old law; three times I was the fool.
The first time I found out that Matthew was stealing he had stolen from a public library. So I figured: shame the kid! I called up the librarian and said, ‘Look, I’m bringing the kid back, and he’s going to return the comic books which he stole from you. Would you please kind of—chastise him?’ I thought that the Lord would look down upon Matthew and that he would feel very uncomfortable when the librarian chastised him. So Matthew came in, put the comics in front of her, and said his piece. And she said, ‘Matthew, Matthew.’ (She was very good. She’s an excellent librarian!) ‘Do you know what you have done,’ she said, steel-eyeing him. ‘You’ll never do that again, right?’
The second time I caught him stealing comic books, I tried a different tack. I used the Word of God, the seventh commandment. I didn’t know if he knew it well enough, so I shook my head and sighed a whole lot, and repeated all the commandments for him. And then for good measure I burned all of his comic books … one at a time. I thought that this disciplinary action was sure to change Matthew. ‘He’ll never steal comic books again,’ I thought. ‘Look at this conflagration, doesn’t it remind you of hell?’
The third time Matthew stole comic books was while I was teaching at Seminex in St. Louis. While we were staying there, Matthew went around the corner and stole some comic books from a store. Well, that seemed more desperate then ever to me, because I was teaching the Word of God, and my son was stealing comic books!
So this is what I finally decided to do. I took Matthew into my study, and I spanked him. I laid him over my knees, as you do. I decided I should feel what he felt and use my bare hands right on Matthew’s bottom. I told him why I was doing it: that in this position he really left me no other choice. I had to spank him.
The first swat that came down on his bottom came hard. And when it did, I felt his entire body stiffen. And I don’t know why, people, but it was that stiffening that pierced me to the heart. It was that stiffening that made me break down on the inside. And I think I gave him maybe four or five good, solid swacks on his butt after that. ’Cause he was so stiff. He was a board. My son was a board on my knees. And as soon as I was done, I left the room. I went out to where our piano is…in the hall, and I burst into tears. And blessed Thanne, my wife, she came over to comfort me, with her arms around me. Well, I cried at the thing I had done, and then I went back into the room.
Now, this is fortuitous, because I tell you the truth: A number of months later, while the family was driving in the car: out of nowhere, Matthew says to me, ‘Dad, do you know why I stopped stealing comic books?’ (And he had stopped!) I said, ‘Yeah, I finally spanked you.’ He said, ‘What!’ And he looked at me. He said, ‘No.… It’s because you cried.…’
‘It’s because you cried.’ The son’s heart was cleansed by his father’s tears. ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God…’
How does God create a clean heart in us? What law may be written on our hearts?
This miracle, this new covenant, these changed hearts can only be created through love—and love that is prepared to suffer. This was true for Walter Wangerin and his son; it is true also as the Holy Spirit writes God’s law in our hearts.
What do we see on the cross? The need of an angry god for blood? Or the love of God as he suffers what human beings will do to him, a love that will not deviate from its course, even though it means not only tears but suffering and death?
What do we see on the cross? We see Jesus suffering for us. We hear him forgiving those who put him there; we share in that experience of being cut off from God. We see that through his suffering, he wins through to say, ‘It is finished—it is accomplished!’
And as we look at Jesus on the cross in faith, his love remoulds us from within and our hearts are softened and remade in the image of Jesus. The way we approach life comes under question—are we looking out for number one, or do we live as part of the body of Christ, a body that lays itself on the line for others?
A new heart means living a new way, Jesus’ way. It means having the whole basis of our life grounded in Jesus. Can we do that? Jesus said,
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
Being a Christian is demanding. Are we prepared to live with Jesus at the centre and not ourselves? Are we prepared to die to our selves and follow him? Can we let go of whatever may separate us from him?
It’s Passiontide, Palm Sunday next Sunday, and soon Good Friday will be upon us. Are we preparing ourselves to let Jesus change our hearts as we remember this most holy season once again?
Let us pray:
Create in me a clean heart, O God…
Write your law upon our hearts…
Teach us to love as you have loved…
Set us free from fear as we walk with Jesus; in his name. Amen.